Agencies nationwide ease age, fitness rules
By Ken Maguire
Police departments around the country are relaxing age and fitness standards, forgiving minor criminal convictions and easing other requirements to relieve shortages in their ranks and find officers who are wiser, more worldly and cooler-headed in a crisis.
In recent years, St. Petersburg and Tampa, Fla., dropped the need for a two-year college degree if the candidate has military or law enforcement experience. Oakland, Calif., is no longer disqualifying applicants for minor, long-ago drug convictions or gang involvement. And Boston this spring raised the upper age limit for recruits from 32 to 40.
"Being well-rounded, having some life experience, makes for a better person and patrolman — someone who is coming up on a conflict who is mature and measured, as opposed to some young kid right out of school," said Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who proposed the age-limit increase.
The relaxation of standards — a trend that emerged in Associated Press interviews and reviews of policies in 50 cities — has been prompted in large part by a dire need for police recruits.
A federally funded study last spring by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington advocacy group for police chiefs and commissioners, found that 10 percent of the nation's police departments had severe shortages of officers.
New York City is looking to hire 3,000 officers. The Los Angeles police want 1,000 more cops; Houston needs 600; Washington is short 330; Phoenix is down about 200; and the Boston force is about 100 officers below its 2000 level.
Among the reasons: The strong economy is offering other job possibilities, aging cops are retiring, starting salaries are low, and the Iraq war is drawing off both would-be police recruits and police officers who are in the National Guard and Reserves.
"There's a real demand for really good people, and there's a limited supply," said Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum. "Cities are having to take a second look at their recruitment standards."
The change in standards also reflects a desire by some departments to focus less on push-ups per minute and more on life experience. Many say older recruits might be less hotheaded and less trigger-happy, and that could mean the difference between escalating or defusing a tense situation.
"There is a movement afoot to focus more on people who are creative problem-solvers," said Gilbert Moore, spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department.
The Indiana State Police last year raised the maximum age for recruits from 35 to 40. Houston went from 36 to 44 last summer.
"We had very few qualified candidates," Houston spokeswoman Johanna Abad said. "The larger pool allows for candidates that are coming out of a military career to go into a second career, which they are qualified for. It's made our pool of applicants a lot more attractive."
The higher age limit in Boston was good news for Stephanie O'Sullivan, a former member of the U.S. women's hockey team who wanted to be an officer, but at 35 was too old. She is applying to the Boston department.
O'Sullivan owns and operates a hockey school with her brother, former NHL player Chris O'Sullivan. She also has a master's degree in criminal justice and works as an investigator for the district attorney's office.
"There's great qualified candidates out there, from the city, that are committed, that have already exhibited a good work ethic, they're mature, responsible. Those are the assets I think you need on the job today," O'Sullivan said.
While many departments have no upper age limits, usually out of fear of age-discrimination lawsuits, some are seeing the advantages of older recruits, provided they can meet the physical requirements.
In North Carolina, the Wilmington police recently hired Laurence Egerton, who turns 57 in December. He has been a social worker, and most recently owned an auto mechanic business. He passed all the physical tests and graduated from the academy as the oldest in a class of 13.
Older officers bring "overall maturity and life experience," Egerton said. He added: "I tend to get a lot of cooperation just because of my age. Whether I'm arresting someone or getting people to divulge information, I think people assume that I've been out there for a long time."
Egerton admitted, however, that 10 1/2-hour shifts can be exhausting. "When I'm done, I have dinner, read the paper and go to bed," he said.
The Police Executive Research Forum study also noted a drop from 36 percent to 20 percent in recent years of departments that require candidates to have a clean criminal record.
Many departments also subject their recruits to lie-detector tests in which they are asked about their drug use. But cities such as Fort Myers, Fla., are overlooking occasional use of drugs such as Ecstasy and powdered cocaine as long as it was more than five years in the past. Most departments still disallow anyone with a felony conviction.
"It's different now for the kids. There's a lot of drugs out there," said Fort Myers Maj. Glenn Johnson. "I'd hate to rule them out because of that."
In Alaska, Juneau Police Lt. Kris Sell said that because of rising obesity among Americans, recruits included, the department recently relaxed its fitness requirements. "It was washing out all the candidates and it washed out all the female applicants," she said.
Applicants must be able to sprint 300 meters in 77 seconds, up from 56 seconds. And they must be able to do at least 15 sit-ups per minute, down from 30.
Two years ago, Los Angeles changed the rules to allow male recruits to carry 24 percent body fat, up from 22 percent; and women 32 percent, up from 30 percent.
On May 25, the city personnel department's medical administrator resigned after six nurses who screen recruits signed a letter of protest, claiming the more lenient body fat standards did not take into account the risk of more trainee injuries and lawsuits. In response, the old rules were reinstated.
"We had people with waists over 50 inches. We're not talking about bodybuilders," said Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine, a former police officer. "The attitude was, `Well, they'll get in shape at the academy.'"
Zine also criticized the department for easing its zero-tolerance policy toward drug use — experimental use of cocaine and marijuana will no longer eliminate candidates — and for dropping a portion of the written test for candidates.
"They're trying to manipulate the system for bodies, for personnel, for increased numbers," he said.
Sgt. Alora Perna, who evaluates and hires recruits for LAPD, said that in the past year or so the department has not eliminated candidates just because of long-ago run-ins with the law.
"We're not looking for perfect people, because we know people are human and make mistakes," Perna said. "We look at what those people have done since those mistakes."
The Philadelphia department is making no changes in its recruitment standards.
Jose Melendez, chief inspector of the training bureau, said police shift work is more suitable for younger people and younger recruits are "more eager to learn." The 367 current recruits are mostly in their mid-20s.
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"These younger officers, they don't have families, wives or young kids at home. They don't have problems working weekends and holidays," Melendez said.